By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TAMPA, Fla. – Coming into spring training this season without pain in his elbow was the best-case scenario for Evan Rutckyj.
After starting last year with discomfort, trying to ride it out, and eventually going under the knife, the 25-year-old New York Yankees minor leaguer couldn’t have been more relieved when he nervously started his throwing program at home in Windsor, Ont., this winter to find that he was working with a pain-free elbow.
The soreness started at the beginning of spring training last year, when Rutckyj was briefly a member of the Atlanta Braves organization after being selected in the minor-league portion of the Rule 5 draft the previous December, but the southpaw thought he could push past it, so that was what he tried to do.
“It got to the point where last year I couldn’t really straighten my arm,” Rutckyj said. “I was trying to throw through it. I kept trying to tell myself that there was nothing wrong, and that it would go away, but then obviously it didn’t go away. I just probably made it worse…
“It wasn’t as bad at the beginning of spring training, so I was icing and I was taking enough Advil to get me through the day. Then it got to the point where I couldn’t really throw anymore. It started hurting a lot in between games when I was pitching.”
Unsure of how much his early performances were affected, Rutckyj threw just three innings for the Braves, allowing one hit and walking five batters before the team decided to part ways with him and put him on waivers, where he went unclaimed. He later received a call from the organization that originally drafted him in the 16th round out of high school in 2010, and he got in his car to make the trek from Orlando to Tampa that same day.
“It was obviously a little disappointing,” he said. “Anytime you have a chance to make a major league club like that, and have that opportunity and you don’t pitch very well, it’s very disappointing. But I was happy to be back with the Yankees. I’ve been with them for seven years now. I’ve still got a lot of strong relationships over here, so in the end it turned out to be okay and I felt like I just came back home.”
After returning to the Yankees, Rutckyj put his potential injury on the back burner, and once again tried to push through it before he finally had to let someone know what was going on.
“It was pretty much two weeks into the season last year before I told someone,” the 6-foot-5, 225-pound left-hander said. “So it was a little while. I honestly thought it would just go away, because sometimes it would hurt in between [outings], but it wouldn’t hurt in between throwing in a game. But when I would get in a game and I really tried to let a pitch go, then I would feel a jolt in the back of my elbow.”
Hesitating to share the news of his pain, Rutckyj was initially extremely worried when the problem reared its ugly head, wondering if he might be facing Tommy John surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow, requiring a gruelling rehabilitation process lasting more than a year.
“Especially because when it hurt like it did, I’ve never really felt anything like that,” Rutckyj said. “I’ve never really had an injury before, and I didn’t know what it was in my elbow, whether it was a tendon or the bone. I didn’t know what it was. So I had a little bit of anxiety for a little while there. When I told them what was wrong, they told me [the issue] was quicker than [Tommy John] surgery, so I decided to get it done.”
Rutckyj’s trip to the operating table resulted in him having bone chips and bone spurs shaved off of his elbow, a much less invasive procedure with a quicker timeline.
“I rehabbed for a couple months,” he said. “The Yankees staff did a really good job of that. I actually came back with better extension and range of motion than I had before I was actually even healthy. So the rehab crew over here did a great job of rehabbing me after my surgery.
Then I went back, got a couple innings in the [Gulf Coast League] at the end of the year, rehabbing, and then two innings in Staten Island, and two innings back in Trenton. When I was back in [Double-A] Trenton, all my velocity and everything was better so I was pretty pumped.”
His happy ending to the season led to what Rutckyj thought was going to be another shot at playing for Team Canada, after suiting up in the red-and-white jersey on the Junior National Team before his pro playing days and then returning to the senior squad for the Pan Am Games on home soil in 2015.
With this year’s World Baseball Classic ahead of the Windsor hurler, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams Greg Hamilton pencilled Rutckyj in as a lefty reliever, before all involved learned that Major League Baseball would decline to insure him.
“Honestly I didn’t really know much about it,” Rutckyj said. “Greg explained it a little bit. It was just because I rehabbed for a certain amount of time last year, or was on the disabled list for a certain amount of time, that MLB could choose not to insure me because of the higher risk of injury during the tournament. So they chose not to…
“I was kind of surprised because I was cleared to throw at the end of the year last year. Then I even felt fine at the beginning of this year. [And] Greg had told me that if MLB did approve me, that I would have a roster spot, so they would keep a spot open.”
It was a disheartening revelation for both the national team and for Rutckyj, who had enjoyed one of his career highlights with the team at the Pan Am tournament, his best memory being winning the gold medal in Ajax, Ont., and was looking forward to representing his home and native land once again.
“I was actually really looking forward to the tournament, especially when I found out that I was invited,” Rutckyj said. “I was pretty pumped for it, especially because I didn’t know about the MLB insurance process. So I was looking forward to it, especially playing with all the guys again, and obviously representing Canada. I felt like we’d have a pretty decent team. But it was very, very disappointing.”
Rutckyj’s disappointment was duplicated by fellow Yankees farmhand Kellin Deglan – who signed with the organization during the off-season after spending all of his earlier minor league days with the Texas Rangers – who learned just before the Classic that he had suffered medium-grade sprains of his sub scap and the supraspinatus in his shoulder, sending him to the sidelines before the tournament.
After playing together for the Canadian Junior National Team and reuniting with the Pan Am squad, Rutckyj welcomed Deglan to the Yankees with open arms, and though both had been looking forward to the WBC, they were happy to form an all-Canadian battery within their shared organization.
“The Pan Am Games were the last time I saw him,” Rutckyj said of Deglan. “I was stoked to have him here. I finally got another Canadian. I’m the only one other than one other pitcher, Jeff Degano, and I’ve never really played with him, so I was pumped. Me and Degs go way back to the Junior National Team, so I was really stoked to have him here.”
As Deglan works his way back from his early-season injury woes, Rutckyj looks ahead to a year free of the problems he faced last season, and knows the results will come as he continues to find comfort back on the hill.
“I feel a little bit rusty on the mound, with my breaking stuff but other than that my arm strength feels pretty good and my elbow doesn’t hurt, which is nice. It’s really nice throwing without my elbow hurting.”